Gender quotas in Ireland: a hasty solution to a serious problem

Gender quotas have increased the number of women taking seats in Dáil Éireann. But society does not allow them to get too comfortable in these seats

A female usher is groped while on the clock. A man claims he needs to “rein in” a woman who has spoken out against him. His colleague pulls a woman onto his lap against her will. A blonde woman is referred to as Miss Piggy. Another woman is accused of “speaking out of her fanny”. When they speak up, his colleague replies, “sure that’s women for ya”.

This is not a recap of the goings-on at your local pub on a Friday evening. This has all occurred within the Houses of the Oireachtas. 

As someone who got voted “most likely to become the president” in school, you’d think I would dream of entering the political arena in Ireland. However, when you open the Irish Examiner and read the words “there’s no denying Mary Lou’s sex appeal” at the impressionable age of sixteen, you don’t necessarily fancy yourself potentially replacing her name in that headline. 

Perhaps the fact that women like myself are running in the opposite direction of the Dáil Chamber is surprising, given that in 2012, a law was introduced that obliges political parties to ensure that at least 30% of the candidates they run in general elections are female. From this year onwards, the threshold has risen to 40%. However, just because parties have to run female candidates, does not mean that we have to vote for them. The quota system in Ireland places too much faith in the general public, not only to elect these female politicians, but to treat them with respect and decorum. As a result, Ireland falls behind China and Iraq for women’s representation in national parliaments, ranking an embarrassing 98th in the world. 

This is not to say that we should vote for female candidates simply because they’re female. Just because a politician is female does not mean that she represents everything that I stand for and every political value that I hold, and why should she? Why is it that a male politician can run for office and represent his local constituency and the political values he holds, but a woman must not only do this, but also represent the female population as a whole. When I go to the ballot box and cast my vote in the next general election, it will be very likely that I will not identify with any of the female candidates on the ballot in front of me. I don’t exactly see a woman in a centre-right party who aims to cut social welfare payments as a symbol of me and what I stand for.

Because of this, it’s evident that gender quotas are a hasty solution to an incredibly complex problem. We expect elected women to advocate on behalf of other women, but we forget that they are constrained by their party policies, which may act to inhibit the discussion of womens’ issues at a desirable level. 

On top of this, we have to actually get womens’ names on the ballot paper, a more difficult task than you may expect. Dr. Lisa Keenan and Dr. Gail McElroy of the Political Science Department at Trinity College have carried out extensive research on the factors determining female representation in Ireland, and have found that in Ireland, despite increased demand for female candidates, women are still hesitant to run for office.

We shouldn’t be surprised that so many women are reluctant to run for office. Some female politicians have actually stopped encouraging other women to run for office. Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan has stated that she has “gone past the stage of recommending politics to people” as a result of years of abuse during her career. Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns, who has faced extensive online abuse, has noted that if she had known what she was getting herself into, she would not have gone into politics. This proves that there is a fundamental issue within Irish society that obstructs women’s opportunities,  and it is an issue that can not be fixed by a simple quota policy. 

Even if we put the issue of gendered abuse of politicians to the side, there is a fundamental issue enshrined within our constitution that acts as a hurdle towards female participation in politics. No, I’m not talking about the infamous Article 41.2 discussing a woman’s “life within the home”. I’m talking about our voting system. PR-STV encourages a localist mindset when it comes to voting. The public thinks strategically about what candidates can best support their local area, and, in turn, candidates promise to solve issues that are exclusive to their constituency such as pot-holes and roadworks. These politicians, who are mostly male, are elected time and time again, making it difficult for newer candidates to enter the competition in these constituencies. Let’s be realistic here. Would you, as a woman, fancy your chances of competing for a seat with the Healy-Raes in Kerry?

Quotas do, of course, have positive effects. They normalise the presence of female candidates on the ballot. They have created a space that encourages women to run for office. They do not address how undesirable existing in this space is for women. They do not address the abuse that women get within this space. They do not address systemic issues within this space, such as the voting system. On the surface, the issue is this: we allow women to enter politics, but we don’t let them get too comfortable. 

Quotas, in the Irish political system, barely scrape the surface of the issues that face female politicians on a daily basis. They do nothing to tackle representation and the abuse of women within the political sphere. They do little to carry out one of their primary functions, which is to encourage women to actually run for office. There are issues evident in the socialisation of Irish people, our unwillingness to look past local issues and our habits of strategic voting that reduce the effectiveness of quotas. The proposal for the creation of four new constituencies and 14 additional seats for the election ahead provides an opportunity for these issues to be discussed at a governmental level. Until these issues are addressed, to the dismay of my former classmates, I won’t be running for office any time soon. 

Kate Byrne

Kate Byrne is the Deputy Comment Editor at Trinity News and is currently in her Junior Sophister Year studying History and Political Science.